Popular With Me 2011: Favorite albums of the year


I’ll remember 2011 as a year with more good music than I had time to devote to it. Because my primary focus is music emerging from SoCal – and because there was so much of it this year – I found myself taking only passing interest in many hyped albums … and not finding a lot of best in what the interwebs deemed  “best new music.” So fire me. Many of my favorite albums of the year came artists with whom I’d already developed a listener’s relationship. Following are my favorite 20 [excluding local artists, because I did a separate list for them]. Happy New Year, and thanks for following Buzz Bands LA in 2011 …

10. Death Cab for Cutie, “Codes & Keys” (Atlantic)

It’s cooler to like the old Death Cab, right? You know, the scruffy, barb-tossing indie outfit from the Northwest, and not the purveyors of emotionally layered, radio-ready pop songs? I love both, and this textured, electro-oriented album features some of Ben Gibbard’s best songwriting.

9. Teddybears, “Devil’s Music” (Big Beat/Atlantic)

The latest from the bear-headed (but obviously not bull-headed) Swedish trio is like a sonic candy store. Robyn, B.o.B. and Cee-Lo are among the guests on the so-sprawling-it’s-giddy collection, but the star of the show is the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, whose “Crystal Meth Christians” is like an op-ed piece gone stoned.

8. Wilco, “The Whole Love” (dBpm)

The Chicagoans’ eighth album is part psychosis, part hypnosis, from its dashes of foreboding imagery to its dreamy textures, teasing noodling and labyrinthine arrangements. No matter where Jeff Tweedy’s ruminations lead (and sometimes the destination isn’t so clear), his is a voice to be followed, and here he seems to remind us to remain open to love in all forms. As this sonically rich album attests, it’s easier to remain open to Wilco in all forms.

7. James Vincent McMorrow, “Early in the Morning” (Vagrant)

I’ll see you your Justin Vernon and raise you James Vincent McMorrow, my frontrunner for Beard of the Year. The Dublin-bred singer-songwriter’s drop-dead-gorgeous album was made in a secluded beach house in Ireland – this after McMorrow dropped out of sight for three years to hone his singing voice. It worked. The troubadour’s pristine falsetto soars soulfully and hauntingly throughout “Early in the Morning,” an album that works best late in the evening.

6. The Black Keys, “El Camino” (Nonesuch)

Talk about not having to reinvent the wheel to make a great album. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney followed up their hard-to-beat “Brothers” with a blues-rock album that, well, probably outstrips its predecessor. “El Camino” is so straight-ahead and so rooted in rock swagger, it sounds as if it could have been album of the year in 1974. Yet it plunders nothing, nor is there a trace of smirkiness so common in revivalists. Like the vehicle for which it’s named, it’s timeless and cool.

5. We Are Augustines, “Rise Ye Sunken Ships” (Oxcart)

Along with Eastern Conference Champions’ “Speak-Ahh” and Arms’ “Summer Skills,” my favorite indie-rock album of the year. The new venture from Billy McCarthy and Eric Sanderson (whom we liked in Pela), We Are Augustines made the kind of bold, literate and almost viciously introspective album that can only come from artists who’ve been through the wars and still don’t compromise in the way they wage them.

4. Ladytron, “Gravity the Seducer” (Nettwerk)

The perennially underrated U.K. electro quartet is still cool as ice, but on its fifth album that frozen H2O is airborne. The band’s foray into dream-pop has all the addictive qualities of the Euro disco and electro-shoegaze of its first four albums – tone-perfect robot beats, meticulously constructed synth lines – but here the vocals of Helen Marnie (and, less prominently, Mira Arroyo) conspire to make the seduction something otherworldly.

3. Fucked Up, “David Comes to Life” (Matador)

Ambitious rock theater from one of North America’s most outrageous hard-core acts. Didn’t see that coming. The Canadian maestros of maelstrom, previously known for their glorious red noise (that’s white noise, with blood), checked in with a 78-minute rock opera, of all things. Whether you dial it up for the storyline or whether you just love having your skin scorched and ears flamed by the combination of Damian Abraham’s screams and his band’s screeching guitars, “David” is worth it. Go front to back with this album, then give yourself a pat on the back.

2. M83, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” (Mute)

Everything about the follow-up to the remarkable “Saturdays + Youth” suggested trainwreck: “Hurry Up” would be a double album (oh, excess); Anthony Gonzalez had retired to L.A. to make it (oh, excess); he even promised it would be “very epic.” Well … it is. Gonzalez’s stratified compositions blur the lines between music’s parts – synths become percussion, percussion becomes melody, and so on – and his California “dreaming” benefits, the album’s widescreen drama revealing an artist who can look with childish amazement at his environment, and who has the power to parse it.

1. Other Lives, “Tamer Animals” (TBD)

Every so often, I hear an album that I feel as if I’m in. So it is with the rapturous second album from the deceivingly reserved quintet from Stillwater, Okla. Lushly orchestrated and grounded in woodwinds, horns and strings, “Tamer Animals” forms a rich sonic and emotional tapestry that suggests both fond sepia-toned memories and black-and-white regrets – cinema that urges participation. Of all the records I spent substantial time with in 2011, it’s truly the one in which you can get lost, and found.

The next 10:

Arms, “Summer Skills.”
PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake.”
Ryan Adams, “Ashes & Fire.”
Lucinda Williams, “Blessed.” Never better.
British Sea Power, “Valhalla Dancehall.”
Deleted Scenes, “Young People’s Church of the Air.”
Wye Oak, “Civilian.”
Kurt Vile, “Smoke Ring for My Halo.”
The Duke Spirit, “Bruiser.”
The Horrors, “Skying.”